Ana Oliveira

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Ejim Dike opened a conference on the poverty of women in New York earlier this week by saying the first speaker, Tanya Fields from Mothers on the Move, a Bronx-based social justice group, could not attend.

Fields had a good excuse: She was in housing court trying to avoid eviction.

“That’s the reality of being poor in the city,” said Dike, director of the Human Rights Project at the New York-based Urban Justice Center.

The United Nations is holding its annual general assembly meeting and one focal point is making progress on ambitious goals to eradicate poverty in the developing world by 2015.

For that reason Dike and other speakers used their meeting–dubbed A Day of Voices: Women’s Tribunal on Poverty–to highlight the impoverishment of women living right here in the United Nations’ host city. The tribunal held a mock court session where witnesses cast judgment on the immorality of poverty.

Women at the meeting took turns at the microphone to tell their stories.

Janet, a Hispanic woman identified only by her first name, spoke as a member of Voces Latinas, a Queens group that helps HIV-positive Latinas. Her voice cracked as she described how she lived with an abusive partner for 10 years because she depended on him to pay rent and buy groceries.

Poverty is a form of abuse, she said. “It harms the mind and the spirit.”

Wide Disparities for Women of Color

She said many immigrant women still believe the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of hope and prosperity. What many people of color find, however, is much different.

Diana Salas, associate director of the Women of Color Policy Network, said New York minority women are worse off than their white counterparts.

Although poverty is identified as a problem, Salas said, policies don’t target women, specifically women of color.

“They’ve erased the feminization of poverty,” she said.

The mock court was organized by the Women of Color Policy Network at New York University; the advocacy group Global Call to Action Against Poverty, based in Johannesburg, South Africa; and one of its committees, the Feminist Task Force.

Across the street from the tribunal, U.N. officials reviewed the global targets known as the millennium development goals–which seek to improve maternal and child health, universal education, women’s equality and environmental sustainability in addition to eliminating poverty–and convened with a sense of tension over reports released earlier this year indicating world efforts are falling short and the unfolding financial crisis in the city.

“We don’t have similar goals in New York City,” said Dike. “So there’s very little you can hold the city accountable to in its fight against poverty.”

Tribunals such as the one convened by the Women of Color Policy Network and the Global Call to Action Against Poverty take place around the world to provide women a platform to tell their stories. The first was held in Peru to draw attention to impoverished rural women. But the New York tribunal drew attention to urban poverty in one of the world’s financial capitals.

Financial Fallout to Deepen

Ana Oliveira, president of the New York Women’s Foundation, which sent representatives to the tribunal, said the crisis on Wall Street will only worsen the situation.

“It hasn’t been calculated yet,” she said. “It hasn’t been addressed and responded to yet.”

The foundation, established in 1987 to improve the economic situation of low-income women, finances women-generated projects and issues public policy recommendations. Their June report, “The Economic Status of Women in New York State,” found that New York women are more likely to be poor now than in 1989.

Oliveira estimated that for every Wall Street job that will be lost in coming weeks and months, three service-level employees are fired. “There’s an incredible ripple effect way beyond the specific jobs that are counted in the financial sector,” she said.

“The service industry is heavily dominated by low-paying jobs by women,” Oliveira said. “As there’s shrinkage in that economy, there’s a loss of jobs for low-paying workers and that impacts women incredibly.”

Oliveira said the $700 billion government bailout now being contemplated on Capitol Hill should address women of color given their higher exposure to poverty. About 1 in 4 African American, Native American and Latina women in New York state lives in poverty, according to the foundation report. About 1 in 10 white women in New York state is poor.

In 2005, the median income for white women in the state was $39,700. Comparable median incomes for African American women were $33,800; for Native American women $31,800; and for Latina women $29,000.

Vulnerability Increases

“When you have an economic downturn, the people that suffer the most are the people that are already economically vulnerable,” Oliveira said. “All of us are hoping that the financial supports that are put in place understand that we have to support the human beings.”

In its report the foundation recommended increasing the number of low-income mothers who can receive the earned income tax credit, which can bolster their incomes; provide better job training; and expand Medicaid to reach more uninsured, working mothers.

New York state ranks 40th in the nation for the number of women who live above the poverty level, but high living costs disguise their actual resources.

New York City’s cost of living–the United States’ most expensive city in 2008, as ranked by Forbes magazine–means that the average income roughly matches the cost of a two-bedroom apartment, Dike said. “Nothing more.”

The morning after the tribunal, Linda Garcia was standing on a street corner a few miles away, taking a break from her job at Burger King. While she didn’t attend the tribunal, she was intimate with the issues it raised.

Her position as a Burger King manager, she said, barely allows her to provide for her two children. The topic of the Wall Street crisis made her shake her head.

“It’s very hard,” said Garcia. “It’s hard to get a job out here.”

Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter covering the presidential campaign for Women’s eNews. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News.

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